Sunday, January 29, 2006

Bird people risk parrot fever

Karen Cronje and Stefanie Hefer share their home in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town, with Jimmy, Kuifie, Pepito, Piet, Patrys, Simon, Bridget and several others who prefer to remain nameless - an exuberant and beloved collection of parrots, parakeets, cockatiels, budgies and finches, who, up until a few weeks ago, were only a source of delight and interest to their owners.

Stefanie explains that they'd noticed one of their African Greys, Beatrix, had been looking a bit poorly. "We'd been keeping her indoors for a few days to shelter her from the winter weather. She just wasn’t herself. She’d lost weight and eventually stopped eating. Then one evening she literally just keeled over. I tried to breathe air into her mouth, but she was gone. It was a real loss - I sobbed my heart out."

Stefanie took Beatrix to a bird disease specialist to find out what had caused her – very – premature death: African Greys live into their eighties, and Beatrix had only been five or six years old. The post mortem showed that Beatrix's lungs were completely perforated; she had literally suffocated to death. The veterinarian diagnosed avian chlamydiosis, a serious infection in birds, and immediately packed Karen and Stefanie off to their GP to be tested for psittacosis.

What are psittacosis and avian chlamydiosis?
Psittacosis, also known as 'parrot fever' or ornithosis, is a disease humans can contract from birds infected with Chlamydophila psittaci, a bacterial-type organism.

Flu-like symptoms usually appear about five to 14 days after exposure to C. psitaci, and may include fever, chills, headache, tiredness, sore muscles, a dry cough, breathing difficulty and chest tightness. The severity of the disease ranges from no obvious symptoms to severe pneumonia and even death.

Parrot fever may be particularly dangerous for the elderly, immunocompromised people and pregnant women, especially if complicated by other respiratory problems.

In birds, C. psittaci infection is called avian chlamydiosis. Infected birds shed the organism in their faeces and respiratory tract secretions, and humans can become infected from exposure to these. The most usual means of infection is by inhaling microbes that have entered the air from dried faeces or secretions. Other means of exposure include mouth-to-beak contact and handling infected birds.

Watch out for parrot fever in caged birds
C. psittaci occurs most commonly in psittacine (parrot-type) birds, like cockatiels, parakeets, parrots and macaws, although it has been found in many bird species. Among other caged birds, infection occurs most frequently in pigeons and doves.

Andrew Whitelaw, a microbiologist at the University of Cape Town, says that internationally, it is estimated that about 5-8% of caged birds are infected.

Most human cases result from exposure to pet birds. Other people at risk include:

* bird breeders,
* workers in poultry plants,
* veterinarians and veterinary technicians,
* laboratory workers handling infected birds or tissues
* farmers
* zoo workers and animal rehabilitators.

Human infection can sometimes even result from brief exposure to infected birds or materials, in people who don't keep or work with birds.

Person-to-person transmission, although it can't be ruled out completely as a possibility, has never been proven, so it’s not necessary to take elaborate precautions against infecting others if you have the illness.

15-20% fatality rate
Doctors take Psittacosis very seriously - and with good reason. Without treatment, the fatality rate in humans is 15-20%. With timely, appropriate antibiotic treatment, however, risk of death drops to less than 1%. Symptoms usually start to improve after two to three days of treatment, but relapse can occur, and it's very important to complete the full course of antibiotics and report any recurrence of symptoms to your doctor.

It is difficult to grow a culture from C. psittaci in the laboratory, and it can take several days to get a clear result. Karen and Stefanie's GP therefore didn't wait to put them on a 10-day course of doxycycline, the antibiotic of choice for treating this infection. All the surviving birds in the household were put on antibiotics too.

As it turned out, the test came back positive for both Karen and Stefanie. They had been experiencing symptoms even before Beatrix's death, but hadn't thought for a moment that these were connected. Psittacosis is often mistaken for other respiratory conditions like flu or bronchitis, because the symptoms are similar.

Says Karen: "We both had symptoms, but they didn't seem unusual, especially in the middle of the Cape winter. I had bronchitis for which I was taking antibiotics – but then I'd had bronchitis before. The one unusual symptom I'd had was headaches, which I normally never get. I also had a fever and a blocked nose.”

Stefanie had been having breathing difficulty. “I felt like I had a ton of bricks on my chest, which was something I’d never experienced before, and I was struggling to breathe. I’ve also been wheezing, coughing, feeling congested, as well as generally really tired.”

Karen and Stefanie’s symptoms are now starting to clear up, and the rest of the flock show no signs of illness. They are adamant they will remain confirmed 'bird people'.

“Lots of people have said: ‘So are you going to get rid of your birds now?’ But the answer is: No, of course not! We love our birds dearly, and don’t feel any resentment towards them because we got this infection. It’s not as if it’s their fault.”

How to protect yourself and your birds

* If you buy a bird, do so only from a reputable breeder or pet shop that maintains high standards of cleanliness and doesn't keep birds under crowded conditions.
* Choose a bird that appears healthy (although this is no guarantee it is free from infection).
* “Once you’ve bought the bird, take it immediately to a vet (not home first) you trust, for a thorough check-up,” says Dr Anel Coetzee, a veterinarian with Tygerberg Animal Hospital who specialises in birds.
* Maintain good hygiene. Clean all cages, food bowls, and water bowls at least once a day. Don’t allow litter and faeces to accumulate. Soiled bowls should be emptied, thoroughly cleaned and rinsed before reuse.
* Between occupancies by different birds, cages should be thoroughly scrubbed with soap and water, disinfected and rinsed.
* Make sure the space you keep your birds is well-ventilated.
* As with all pets, wash your hands well after handling them. Kissing your birds and feeding them from your mouth is not a good idea.
* Protect birds from undue stress (e.g. crowding, relocation and cold) and malnutrition. This lowers their resistance to infection. Dr Coetzee says that incorrect feeding is a major cause and predisposing factor in a number of conditions: “Feed your birds pellets, not seeds; seeds are a ‘death diet’ that leads to malnutrition.”
* If you’re going away, don’t board your birds where there are others – rather get someone in to look after them. Also, says Dr Coetzee, don’t take in stray birds and house them with your resident birds.
* Get to know your bird. If you’re familiar with all its quirks and foibles, you’re much more likely to notice a change in behaviour or appearance that could signal disease. Signs of avian chlamydiosis (and of several other bird diseases) include lethargy, appetite loss, weight loss, and ruffled feathers, discharge from the eyes or nostrils area, diarrhoea or unusual faeces e.g. loose green stools.
* If you or your bird are diagnosed with the infection, inform everyone who has had recent contact with your bird, and suggest they get tested – especially if they’ve been experiencing symptoms.

Olivia Rose-Innes,

Sunday, January 22, 2006

It's a bird's life and sometimes a rough one

They're smart. They're beautiful. They even talk. Little wonder parrots are so

But for every person who thinks a parrot would be the perfect pet, there's a
parrot owner who would not only disagree, but would also hand over his parrot
to prove it.
Pebbles, a sun conure came
from a loving home.
But when her owner had to go
into an assisted-living facility,
Pebbles could not go along

As too many bird buyers discover too late, living in peace with a parrot takes
more time and effort (not to mention patience) than they imagined. More money,
too. Because when you say veterinarian in bird-speak, you're saying specialist,
even for ordinary care.

All too often, the demands of life with a member of the parrot family become
too much, and the parrot suffers the punishment. Sometimes it is turned loose
to survive on its own. Flocks of macaws, conures and other once-captive parrots
have been on the increase in some areas of the country, according to the Avian
Welfare Coalition ( But in most cases captive parrots
turned loose to fend for themselves seldom survive.

If an unwanted parrot is lucky, it will be surrendered to a shelter or, better
still, a rescue group. Reputable groups will rehabilitate the birds if
necessary, take care of any health problems, then find them the kind of caring
homes they need.

Perfectly Precious Rescue Adoption ( is a
leading parrot rescue group in St. Louis. Phyllis Cotton of St. John and Janet
Draper of Olivette co-founded the organization about five years ago, after
spending many years rescuing parrots, unofficially, as members of the Gateway
Parrot Club of St. Louis ( The rescue organization
was incorporated in 2002 and received its 501(c)(3) nonprofit certification
last year, Draper said.

The discarded-parrot situation in St. Louis is not as bad as in other parts of
the country, where birds are being euthanized because of too few homes, Cotton
said. Nevertheless, the local parrot rescue group can always use more foster
families, especially ones who have experience with parrot species.

Draper noted that many of the birds the group has under its wings at the moment
are parakeets.

"Everybody wants to get rid of their budgies," she said. "We must have around
75 of them."

People tell Draper that the little birds are too much trouble or they're too
loud. But she believes there's another reason: "I think a lot of the time
people get parakeets for their kids to teach responsibility - which is a really
bad reason to get any pet - and then when the child doesn't take
care of it, the parents get mad and the bird goes."

For those who take the time to learn what the care of parrots entails and who
still are willing to commit to the responsibility, parrots can make wonderful

"But do all the research ahead of time," Cotton advises. "There are different
species of parrots. Find out which type is right for you and your family.
Cockatoos may be beautiful, but they can also be extremely noisy, extremely
demanding, destructive and difficult. Don't wait until you bring one into your
home to find that out."

January is Adopt-a-Rescue-Bird-Month. Draper advises people who plan to adopt a
bird to check the rescue group's references. Contact the group's veterinarian
to be sure that the birds get health checks, she said.

But don't be afraid to adopt a rescued bird. As the birds on these pages
illustrate, secondhand birds are tossed aside for all kinds of reasons. And
even so-called problem birds are seldom a problem at all once they find the
right home. 314-340-8264

TOOTSIE: This yellow nape Amazon's tale is a typical surrender story. She was
purchased by people who knew nothing about parrots and were unprepared to deal
with one. Tootsie's behavior was aggressive when she was turned over to rescue,
but she has become a sweet, cuddly companion who loves to sit on her new dad's

PEANUT: This Congo African gray parrot was surrendered to Perfectly Precious
Rescue Adoption because of a lifestyle change. His family had a baby, and he no
longer got the love and attention he needed. Peanut was adopted into a home
where he is now the center of his family's life.

PACO: Paco is a Nanday conure who plucked out his feathers because he was kept
virtually in the dark for six years in order to keep him quiet. He's actually a
sweet bird, and his foster family would now be reluctant to part with him.

LITTLE MISSY: This Goffin's cockatoo came into the rescue program when her
owner could no longer care for her. She arrived with an intestinal infection
and a severe self-mutilation condition, not uncommon in cockatoos, that
required a special collar to keep her from pulling out her feathers. Three
months later, the collar was removed, and she has since found a loving home.

TIELTJE: Formerly known as Snow White, Tieltje is a sweet albino cockatiel who
was turned over by a breeder. Her feet were flat and deformed, but with some
massage and other therapy, the stiffness in her toes is gone, and she is doing
well in her new home.

PUA: A beautiful umbrella cockatoo, Pua was a Disney star in Florida who was
fired for having a mind of his own (he wouldn't stay on the stage). He was
originally taken in by an elderly man who became too ill to care for him. The
man's son turned to the parrot rescue group, which found Pua the perfect human

PEBBLES: This beautiful sun conure came from a loving home. But when her owner
had to go into an assisted-living facility, Pebbles could not go along.
Perfectly Precious Rescue Adoption found her a new home, and she quickly bonded
with her new owner, who says Pebbles brings lots of laughter and sunshine to
her life.

ALBERT: Named after Albert Schweitzer and Albert Einstein, both humanitarians
and animal lovers, this Nanday conure was one of three birds whose owner could
not afford their veterinary care. Although Albert is not the most photogenic
bird, his feathers are definitely growing in some. Now that he has found a
happy home, he is healthier and less stressed-looking than he once was.

EMMA: A white dove, who used to be named Snowflake, Emma belonged to a child
who failed to take care of her. For some reason Emma decided this Christmas
decoration was THE spot for a nest, and her new family gave up trying to
discourage her.

NORMAN: Originally named Skeeter, this Nanday conure was surrendered by someone
who could not afford veterinary care. A sweetheart with soul, Norman likes to
bob his head in time to music (it has to be fast music) and yell, " Sweet!" In
his new home last year, he was a pretty good predictor of "American Idol"
contestants. He hopes to do even better this season.

FRITZ: Fritz was one of two sun conures who was given up by a college student
who hated to see them go. He's now in a home with a dusky conure named Peepers
and a Quaker parrot named Wilbur. Fritz follows the latter around like a puppy
and tries to do whatever big brother Wilbur does. But he is jealous of Peepers
and tries to dive-bomb her off people's shoulders.

PEEPERS: A total doll, this talkative dusky conure likes to say, "Hey,
Peepers." She also likes to stick her head out of her tent in the morning and
whisper, "Hi, Peepers." Although conures are often surrendered because their
owners can't handle the birds' loud, sharp voices, Peepers ended up in rescue
because her former owner's job prevented her from giving Peepers the
companionship she needed.

WILBUR: Way too smart for his own good and highly energetic, this Quaker parrot
wore out his welcome at his first home and ended up in rescue when he was only
about a year old. His new owner describes him as exasperating, lovable, moody,
adorable, unbearable and cute as a button. When Wilbur is bad, his mom puts a
hat over him. He's the head of the household, and he knows it.

JAKE: Not all birds in Perfectly Precious Rescue Adoption are from the metro
area. Jake, a double yellow-head Amazon parrot who was given up because of his
owner's travel schedule, flew in from Las Vegas. (On a plane. In a carrier. In
the passenger compartment.) He was adopted just last weekend.

CECIL: This Quaker parrot was given to a young girl whose father refused to pay
for veterinary care. By the time the rescue group picked him up, the emaciated
bird, who should have weighed 100 to 120 grams, weighed only 63 grams and was
so weak he could not stand. Janet Draper hand-fed him, gave him some fluids and
antibiotics, put him in a hospital cage with supplemental heat and expected him
to die overnight. The next morning he was not only still alive, he was
standing. He had to be tube-fed for more than a week, but he recovered and is
now in a wonderful home.

TOOIE: Tooie's original owners had had the Moluccan cockatoo for several years
when they came home one night and found him cowering in the corner of his cage,
terrified to come out. The episode was the first in an ongoing pattern of
unpredictable behavioral outbursts that caused Tooie's owners to give him up.
He is now with a foster family in Illinois.

FRED: Now known as Spanky, this deformed green-wing macaw had been living alone
in a propane-heated tin shed behind his owner's house before he was finally
turned over to parrot rescue. At first he was so terrified he wouldn't go to
anyone. He just screamed. Now he walks out on his new owner's arm. Surgery
helped correct his beak, which was twice its normal size, and he does exercises
to strengthen his neck.

WHISPER: Whisper is a Lutino cockatiel who was turned over to rescue when her
introduction to the family flock set off a feud between two formerly friendly
male cockatiels. Lutinos typically are less hardy than other cockatiels, but
Whisper came into the adoption program with no medical problems. The beautiful
3-year-old soon found a wonderful new home with a group of other rescue birds,
including Tieltje.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

East Park will host the biggest aviary in Britain

The giant walk through aviary will be the biggest in Britain. Apparently you could put six budgies in there and never see them again.